life, poetry, Uncategorized, writing

What I Write When I Don’t Write Poems

Back-porch scribblings while looking across the pond.

Sometimes people ask me, ”Why don’t you write fiction or nonfiction?” My answer to them is, ”I do; it’s just not my first love or my calling.” I sometimes begin with prose before arriving at a poem. Today was one of those days. Sitting on my back porch with a yellow legal pad in my lap and a cup of coffee nearby, I began writing something, anything, to prime the mental pump. Gym-goers, consider this like the cardio before the weight training. As I cursived out a few initial throw-away words, the garbage truck pulled up out front, its brakes emitting that high, industrial screech that precedes a brief stop. This quick encounter prompted the following to appear on my notepad:

The sound of our neighborhood garbage truck takes me back to Fort Meade, circa 1986, when garbagemen (yes, that’s what we called them) would leap from the backs of slow-moving, dirty white trucks and, with Herculean muscle, lift and empty our large metal trash cans into the waiting, hungry mouth of the compactor in the truck’s rear. The work was filthy and stinky, and the men who did it went home every night smelling of other people’s refuse. But the men who did it grew strong and made a decent enough living to send kids off to college so they’d never have to become “sanitation workers.”

Today, the truck extends a mighty mechanical gripper. The machine lifts, empties, and returns the dumpster, which is lifeless gray plastic. There is no poetry in this process. No clang of cans, no yelling among workers. No Clyde, no Cecil [whose names we knew because they were embroidered onto gray-blue name-strips above their breast pocket, sometimes ripped]. No quick wave before the resumption of a route. Just an ugly claw taking waste, leaving vacancy.

Ironic, I suppose, that I openly stated the lack of poetry in modern rubbish collection. Had it not been for the shiny blue truck’s arrival and the sensations that went with it, my recollection would not have been triggered. I know that Cecil and Clyde (conveniently two C names) will probably make an appearance in a future poem. I know that those noises and memories will probably appear in that poem, as well. And I know that right now, I must allow those images and ideas to rest a while before they become something else. I’ll stash away this yellow piece of paper, and some morning at 4 a.m., much to my family’s chagrin, I will revisit this small vignette, and it will take on new life in my chosen genre.

This is what a life in literature sometimes looks like: not the gleam of an award or the bustle of a book-signing, but the simplicity of a legal pad, a ballpoint pen, and a cup of coffee. A view of a pond, a quick sensory stimulation, and a ready place to process all those thoughts that arrive. This is what I write when I don’t write poems.

life, Uncategorized, writing

Encouragement, Persistence, or Something Else?

I’m social media “friends” with many people I knew during my secondary school career. It’s interesting to see who has gotten married, moved away, had kids, or recently switched careers, among other things. Some folks make you think, “Yes, that sounds about right for so-and-so,” and others surprise you: “Really? I never thought (name here) would ever (insert seemingly strange life event here).”

Every once in a while, though, a name pops up in my feed and I think, “Now why aren’t they writing more?” After all, I went to school with a great number of people who were stellar writers at the middle school and high school level — far better than I was, definitely. They had a strong sense of language’s musicality, wrote with a unique personal diction, and went well beyond any of the formulaic writing advice handed out by teachers at that time.

I think of “Rosa,” a Wauchula Hills girl Mr. Pace praised for her innovative compositions in eighth grade. I think of “Ralph” and “Jorge,” both of whom dominated English class but who could equally demystify math and science, a feat my right-hemisphere-heavy brain could never perform. These students and others were cheered for their writing prowess in both the creative and academic genres, but today, they’ve abandoned the art altogether. Adulthood and all its myriad obligations appear to have stifled the authorial impulse for these classmates, and I want to implore them, “Go buy a legal pad and scribble down the first things that come to mind! We need more writers like you!”

Admittedly, the affairs of their lives are not mine to judge, no matter how well-intended my wishes for them may be. It could be that some of them gave writing a try only to find that it is fickle: Some days are diamonds, some days are stones, to quote the late John Denver. Maybe one or two started a blog like this one and discovered that it doesn’t pay the bills, so why bother? Truthfully, there is much I just don’t know, but I suspect that the lack of immediate reward could have been a turn-off. Some people labor at the inkwell/keyboard all their lives and never see any impact, yet posthumously, their words are cherished (think Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allan Poe for starters). Why persist under circumstances like that?

I still write because of both encouragement and endurance. Plenty of people in my life motivated me along the way, and I’ve come to understand that doing a thing for a long time has its rewards, both intrinsic and extrinsic. This year marks my twenty-fifth as a “real” poet — someone who has gone beyond dabbling with clever rhymes and poured time, resources, and significant work and research into the craft. There are plenty of much younger people who have achieved literary fame (and even fortune) from their words at ages far lower than mine. But I genuinely don’t perceive writing as a competition, and because I don’t, I just keep going at my own pace, on my own terms. I take heart from poets like Billy Collins and Ruth Stone, both remarkable writers who weren’t “discovered” until about age 60. Things turn out okay for scribes who keep at it, and even if I’m never discovered in the same way they were, I will have compiled a considerable body of work for my family to remember me by, for better or worse.

Writerly classmates of old Hardee High, please pick up a pen. I promise that your words will make it worthwhile. Even on the hard days, even on the dry-well days, even on the apathetic days, having written anything at all still feels good. Do it because it’s therapy. Do it because it leaves a legacy. Do it because you have a talent to either use or lose. I look forward to seeing your latest work soon. Until then, happy scribbling.

life, poetry, publishing, writing

A Season of Good News

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Sometimes the cards are in your favor. Lately I’ve had my fair share of the positive, and I thought I’d apprise you, my loyal readers.

Item number one: Southern Literary Review did a fantastic review of my latest book, The Places That Hold. Claire Matturro, a phenomenal writer in her own right, really absorbed the meaning, the imagery, and the depth of this latest collection. You can find her lovely words here: https://southernlitreview.com/reviews/the-places-that-hold-by-john-davis-jr.htm

Item number two: The day after the great review above came out, Southern Literary Review posted a Q&A they did with me, as well. This really gets into the why and how of the book: https://southernlitreview.com/authors/claire-hamner-matturo-interviews-john-davis-jr-author-of-the-places-that-hold.htm

Item number three: I recently learned that The Places That Hold has won a bronze medal in the Florida Book Awards. For those outside the lovely Sunshine State, this is kind of a big deal here. Scholars, university faculty members, and respected authors are on the decision-making panel for the Florida Book Awards, and typically the works that are chosen represent voices that are more established. My good friend and mentor Erica Dawson received a gold medal in the Florida Book Awards a couple years ago for her book, When Rap Spoke Straight to God (Tin House Books). To be in the company of such fine voices is honestly humbling.

So yes, things are going well here. The launch of the book at Firehouse Cultural Center in Ruskin was a success (even amid high COVID rates and bad weather), spring break is a mere three weeks away, and another fair season is in full swing. As the Ferris wheel spins its nightly neon colors over in Tampa amid the noise and oily-delicious smells of the midway, I’m reminded that everything is cyclical — there are highs and lows, lights and darkness. I’m grateful to be in a higher, lighter time.

If you haven’t yet purchased a copy of The Places That Hold, let me recommend the best possible site to get one: https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781934894682 (This site will connect you to your local independent bookstore, who needs your business now more than ever — Don’t get me wrong, I use the “big boys” too, but let’s help out our smaller merchants). Thank you for supporting poetry!

If you’d like to allow others to enjoy the book, you can help spread the word about The Places That Hold by making a donation of any size through PayPal: https://paypal.me/poetjohndavisjr?country.x=US&locale.x=en_US

life, poetry, publishing, Uncategorized, writers, writing

The Joy of Author’s Copies

Look what arrived today!
There’s nothing quite like holding your book after it’s just been published.
Even the back cover is beautiful. So satisfied with this collection!

Ready to get your own copy? Visit:

https://eastoverpress.com/books/the-places-that-hold/

life, poetry, publishing, Uncategorized, writers, writing

Accepting Preorders Now!

front-cover-davis-2

The Places That Hold

John Davis Jr.’s newest poetry collection published by Eastover Press. Small-town life, rural truths, and poems of captivity interweave themselves in this volume.

$20.00

For all those who’ve eagerly asked to be notified when the new book is available, I have special news: Tuesday is the official release day! In preparation for this major event, I’m offering my preorder folks a unique bargain — order today (before the release) and you’ll have a signed copy made out to you. I’ll ship it to you (shipping included in price above) along with a personal card of thanks as soon as I receive my author’s copies. As the holiday season arrives, please help me celebrate this new collection with your support. Just click the “Pay with PayPal” button above. Thanks in advance!

life, poetry, publishing, writers, writing

Cover Reveal: The Places That Hold

Hello, readers. I’m very excited to reveal the cover of my new forthcoming book! Hot off the designer’s PC, here’s the front of The Places That Hold, my fifth collection.

This 81-page book contains some of my finest work yet, according to my fiercest critics (see also: wife and sons). I’ve had a great experience with EastOver Press, the publisher. They’re located out of Rochester, Mass., but the editor calls Speedwell, Tennessee home. This publication marks the first time I’ve ever received an advance for a book, and while it’s crass to discuss money matters, I can honestly say that receiving that check was both gratifying and validating for a small-town scribbler like me.

Perhaps what I’m most excited by is this book’s rare chemistry: It is a unique combination of fond reflection and tragic documentary. On the one hand, there are lots of poems about the beauty and history of my home state. But on the other, there is one whole chapter devoted to pieces inspired by the horrific events that took place at Dozier Reform School in the panhandle. The book is equal parts light and darkness, with poems that examine what it means to call somewhere home alongside those about alienation and abandonment. For those seeking the rural and the natural, you’ll find plenty of both here, but you’ll also find the noise and smell of cities like Tampa, St. Petersburg, and even Lisbon, Portugal. These “Places That Hold,” alongside others, create a book that is rich in imagery. These poems provide escape via captivity.

Keep your eyes on this site for further updates; as soon as The Places That Hold becomes available for purchase, I’ll provide the links and locations here. Thanks as always for supporting my work, and may your upcoming holiday season be the happiest yet.

life, poetry, writing

Night Hikes, Vultures, and Subjects to Avoid in Writing

Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) « Extension's Sustainable Tourism Blog

Last New Year’s Eve, I took a night hike that turned scary. My boys, my wife, and I were at Pioneer Park in Zolfo Springs, and we weren’t quite ready to hit the hay, so we began walking. I brought along my Q-beam, a powerful handheld light that could shine the eyes of racoons, opossums, and other night creatures.

As we walked, we heard a shuffling in the high branches of nearby cypresses. Curious, I shone the bright light up into the dark boughs. Hundreds of buzzards were roosted there, and I had disrupted their beauty sleep. They swooped angrily from the trees, their oily wings and guttural calls combining in horrid cacophony above us. Their thick, putrid droppings spattered the ground. Both my sons thought the big birds were attacking us; in retrospect, they may have been right.

We retreated to camp. Tired from running and drained from an adrenaline dump, we all had a long and deep night’s sleep in our tent. The next morning over a campfire breakfast, we talked over the incident from the night before: Were the vultures merely moving from the discomfort of the light? Were they defending the roost? None of us knew for sure. But the lesson learned remains with us on every camping trip — Don’t wake the buzzards.

What, you may ask, does this story have to do with creative writing? Well, as an MFA student, I was often encouraged to write about the things that were most uncomfortable and disruptive. “Dig into your deepest secrets and horrible moments,” the advice went, and many young writers did exactly that, producing poems and stories about the most horrific traumas and ugliest family secrets you can imagine.

But we are now living in an age where those kinds of experiences flood the Internet and all other forms of media. If one expects to be read or heard, there needs to be some kind of wound or tribulation involved. It’s exhausting, and it’s warping the upcoming generation. We now have boys and girls who consider emotional damage the norm, and if someone isn’t professing a psychological condition, they become the outcast. I say enough.

There is a reason that Billy Collins and the late Mary Oliver are best-selling poets: Their work often explores the everyday, the pleasant, and the (heaven forbid) accessible. People are tired of reading about degradation and dismay, and poetry that continues to explore darkness only reaffirms what non-readers of poetry already thought — Poetry is some exclusive, deeply morose art form that only eccentrics and humanities majors can “get.”

It’s time to stop disturbing the vultures, writers. Our potential audience is waning like never before because they’re done with all the negativity, the political diatribes, and the recounting of grievous injustices. Should our poetry become all sunshine and daisies? No. Is there a time and place where unkind or ugly words must be shared? Yes. But we have already overextended that period, and it’s time to give readers some joy, some light, and some of what the Romantics would celebrate — poetry that glorifies nature, humankind’s connection to it, and life at large.

We need more odes, and less of the odious. Poetry will thrive with the masses again when we begin to remember the words of the apostle Paul: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” It’s high time that our words gave people the impressions and sensations of positivity. Now more than ever, we need poems that are lights. And we need those lights to shine on something other than the “buzzards” of our shared humanity.

life, poetry, publishing, writers, writing

Recent Good News

Tools of the Trade

I know it’s been a while since I updated this blog, and for that, my audience, I sincerely apologize. Truth is, there hasn’t been much to report. But that’s about to change…

Earlier this week, I received the good news that my fifth collection of poems, The Places That Hold, will come out in spring of next year. EastOver Press, a relatively new producer of fine literature, will be its publisher, and I couldn’t be more pleased. They’ve done fine work for fellow poets like Sylvia Woods, and this book deserves a publisher who gives careful attention and craft to the sacred act of bookmaking. Too many small publishers today are fly-by-night, single-person operations that are more interested in money than art. I can honestly say that EastOver Press defies that trend, and I’m pleased to be associated with them.

Also, Cutleaf Journal just published several poems of mine. Here’s the link. These new ones take a hard look at our sometimes conflicted relationship with place; I suspect everyone faces that complex feeling about location and its emotional resonance sooner or later.

As more developments arise, I’ll be sure to announce them. I’m looking forward to revealing the cover of the new book in months ahead, and I’m eager to drop a few hints about its interior, as well. For now, you can get a sneak peek of some of its poems by visiting the Cutleaf Journal link I’ve included here. Thanks for reading!

life, poetry, publishing, writing

On Winning and Losing in Literary Life

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Recently, I was honored to receive a lovely recognition: The Sidney Lanier Poetry Prize. The contest, hosted by the Sidney Lanier Memorial Library in North Carolina, was judged by former North Carolina Poet Laureate Cathy Smith Bowers, who read my first-place poem during a Zoom-based awards ceremony earlier this week. You can read about the award and view my poem here: https://thelanierlibrary.org/upcoming-events/sidney-lanier-poetry/

I am thrilled and excited by this achievement, just as I was when I was a poetry “newbie” seeking to stake my claim in the literary landscape of our country. I know the prize probably won’t make national headlines or secure me a six-figure advance on a book deal from Norton, but every time my work manages to get a little attention, it’s a nice reminder that I’m doing something right. I’m sure it’s the same for artists or creators of any type.

Lots of novice poets get very intense about winning contests; they pay obscene entry fees, look for legitimate-sounding competitions that promise “publication” or big monetary awards, and they think that if only they can win, their struggle for literary acclaim will at last be over. I know this because I did it, too. Truth is, there’s always a bigger award. Even Pulitzer and Nobel winners will tell you: Once you’ve got the thing, you’ve got it. You take it for granted after a while, even as rising writers grit their teeth and sweat over such matters, grinding their pencil leads into ugly nubs or mercilessly pounding their poor, abused keyboards.

This isn’t to say that awards don’t matter; certainly there are some that can ensure future prosperity and opportunity for those of us in writer-land. But to fret over which prize we might win or lose? That’s a surefire way to inhibit creative flow. The author banging out words with a mindset fixated on ribbons or trophies is a typesetter, not a writer. “If I just arrange these artfully glamorous adjectives in a certain way, I can be sure to impress the judges,” they tell themselves, all the while sacrificing authenticity.

There are those who will say that art should never be about competition, that the two notions are diametrically opposed. They say that there can be no truly fair criteria for contests since artistic taste is subjective. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and so forth. I won’t go so far as to endorse their argument. For as long as humans have existed, we have competed, even in abstract matters. To throw away literary contests would be a foolish refusal to acknowledge our humanity. But that doesn’t mean we need to prioritize contests over the truer, nobler task of creating. Writers write, above all else. In the words of Faulkner, “Don’t be a writer; be writing.”

The other truth that new writers are sometimes unprepared for is the extraordinary number of losses one must endure for each win. Every time a poet or prose writer achieves some prize, you can bet that there are huge strings and stacks of losing entries that preceded victory. Even my friends who are considered “name-brand” poets acknowledge that losing is a far larger part of lit-biz than winning. The old adage about “taking your lumps” is as true in writing as it is in sports, performance, or business. Everybody pays their dues.

I neither discourage nor encourage entry into poetry contests. I think that each person must decide whether such an act is worth the time, resources, and effort invested. For some, competition is a motivator, and for others, it means anxiety. In a culture that embraces the idea “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take,” there remain individuals who are happier refraining from shooting altogether. Good for them; not entering is as much a willful act as entering.

For those of us who keep submitting our stuff to competitions large and small, keeping a balanced perspective is crucial. I appreciate the recognition of this latest award, and I’m honored by it, as well. And like so many other people, I like to win. However, I’ve also done this long enough to know that achievement and accomplishment only happen via work. And the work must go on.

life, teaching, writing

COVID-19 Finally Hits Home

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As the rest of the country celebrates the “end in sight” for coronavirus, my family gets to encounter a new challenge from it. Earlier this month, on the fifth to be exact (my late stepdad’s birthday, as luck would have it), I was informed that my university was laying me off with no prospective date for rehire or return. After four and a half years of teaching, writing, and positively impacting the lives of adult learners, a virus ended my job. The explanation: Student enrollment declined, admissions decreased, and retention was lower because of COVID-19. Cutbacks had to be made, and I was one of them. Other faculty members had rank and seniority, so here we are. One chapter abruptly ended.

If you’ve learned anything from my previous posts, however, it’s probably this: I am uniquely blessed with an ability to bounce back from obstacles in darn-near record time. The same day my layoff took effect, I received a phone call from a private school near my home. The principal requested that I come teach for them in the 2021-2022 school year, and I gladly accepted. The terms were good, and the environment is ideal for my unique brand of literary pedagogy. Granted, I’ll have a few months to “struggle” before my new gig takes effect, but there is hope waiting at the end of summer.

My situation is far better than some others. There are people who have no idea when or if they’ll return to work, and I’m sensitive to that. In the meantime, though, I’m devoting myself to grand plans for the school year yet to come. Part of this grand plan involves getting my students certain supplies I’d like them to have in the year ahead. Here is where you come in, dear reader:

I’m going to be teaching high school English to roughly 85 students. As part of this assignment, I’d like each of my students to have a Rocketbook reusable notebook. For those unfamiliar, a Rocketbook allows the user to simply wipe off previous writings after they’ve been used, submitted, or captured via phone or tablet. What does this mean? A single Rocketbook will last my students all year and enable us to do project work, interactive literature circles, and a wide variety of other tasks that plain paper and pen just won’t. Students can even submit their handwritten items to different email inboxes, making grading and organization a breeze.

How can you help with this endeavor? I’ve set up a fundraiser for this initiative here: https://adoptaclassroom.force.com/donors/s/designation/a1m0y000003oycDAAQ/john-davis

Any assistance that you can provide is much, much appreciated. Even if COVID-19 threw me a curveball, I intend to throw one right back at it by resuming excellent instruction as soon as possible. Your contribution will allow my kids to thrive and grow in the brighter days ahead. Thanks for reading and thanks for giving!